Oct 27, 2016

Understanding religious cults can be complicated

Ron Burks, Ph.D.
TMH blogger
July 31, 2015

The word “cult” conjures images that range from religious regimentation and extremism to dancers around open fires and sacrificing chickens in the backyard. The popular show “The Following” portrays a group that spends most of its time murdering people and outsmarting the longsuffering detective. Real cults are far less entertaining, but they nonetheless, inflict lasting harm on their followers and their families.

Cults are often formed because of a religious belief. One religious body may disagree with the beliefs of another and consider themselves a “cult.” Being disliked or having detractors does not mean a group is a cult. When drama and diatribe is stripped away, factors that distinguish between cults and various religious bodies, civic clubs or other social associations become clearer. The term “cult” must be used in a very narrow sense in any discussion on public health, and more specifically, mental health.
It must be remembered that cults probably include some benefits or else no one would join. Most cults provide a unique form of belonging, closeness and a sense that one will never be alone again. Whether loved, feared or both, cult leaders provide a sense of peace, order and security. The atmosphere of a cult provides simple answers to complex life issues. There are usually special inspirational experiences that make members grateful to be apart. Cults also have the ability to increase the suggestibility of its members.

In time, most members begin to surrender personal choice believing it to be in their own best interest. Questions are met with simplistic responses implying that further inquiry is insulting to the intelligence of the leader or the group in general.

Restricted opportunity to make unaided choices usually impairs a sense of personal identity. Members forget who they are, or were. Cults usually create some form of separation from mainstream culture, whether it is psychological or physical. Members feel they only “fit in” with their group. Cults usually espouse an ultimate purpose that is in sync with the member’s morals or life goals.

Deception and fraud are usually at the heart of any group that deserves the name cult. When exposed, the powerful psychological processes that held the member to the group are disrupted. The member sees through the deception and leaves. Then, the ex-member of a cult or partner in a cult-like relationship says: “I don’t know who I am or where I belong” and/or “My life has no purpose.” These factors often result in years of depression and aimlessness.

Internet sites like icsahome.com, wellspringretreat.org, neirr.org and many others provide connections, information and opportunities for specific, formal residential treatment. There are resources for mental health professionals at icsahome.com who are attempting to treat ex-members. The Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center has treated many ex-members and offers a monthly support group. To learn more, please call 850-431-5105 or visit TMH.org.
Ron Burks, Ph.D., LMHC, Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center


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